How Does the FIBA Game Differ from the NBA Game?It should be obvious at first glance to even the most casual observer that the FIBA brand of basketball is much different than the NBA game: the FIBA court features a trapezoidal lane, a much shorter three point shot (20'6" compared to the NBA's 23'9"), and a shorter game clock (40 minutes compared to the NBA's 48). Yes, these differences have existed for quite some time and did not make a bit of difference when Team USA sent the Dream Team to the Olympics in 1992--but the basketball world was completely different then; the idea that a 6-3 Canadian point guard would someday win two NBA MVPs, followed by a 7-foot German forward winning the MVP the next year, was beyond unimaginable. The talent gulf between the USA and the rest of the world was so great that rules differences and stylistic quirks did not matter but even at that time it should have been understood that this would not always be the case. After all, it was just four years earlier that a team of the best U.S. collegiate players failed to win the gold medal in the Olympics. Now that the NBA has a significant population of players who are not from the USA, the intimidation factor that used to mitigate against Team USA's lack of familiarity with the FIBA game is completely absent.
Charley Rosen just wrote an excellent article detailing the differences between the NBA game and the FIBA game. Here are my thoughts on some of his observations.
1) In FIBA play, the ball can be touched by any player as soon as it contacts the rim, while in the NBA the ball cannot be touched if it is above the cylinder. Rosen says that because NBA players are not instinctively used to playing this way they tend to not take advantage of the opportunity to deflect and/or rebound such balls. He is right about this but, unlike the lane or the three point line, this is not a rule that comes into play on every single possession. Given the overall athleticism of Team USA, this is one rules difference that could actually play to Team USA's advantage if the players are mindful enough in the heat of battle to take advantage of it.
2) Rosen points out two ways that the trapezoidal lane affects post play: (1) Post players must catch the ball further away from the hoop than they do in the NBA, necessitating extra dribbles to get to their sweet spots. Rosen says that this is why the FIBA game favors big men who can shoot quick turnaround jumpers, because otherwise there is more time for help defenders to arrive; (2) offensive rebounders have a better angle to the hoop after free throw attempts in the FIBA game than they do in the NBA.
I would add that it is overly simplistic for fans and writers to say that Team USA struggles at times in FIBA play because American players have gotten away from the fundamentals; the reality is that some of the "fundamentals" of FIBA play differ from those of NBA play and the post is one area that this is very evident. Think back to when Tim Duncan played for Team USA. He is perhaps the most fundamentally sound big man in the NBA, but he struggled in the post offensively and defensively, looked uncomfortable and hesitant and also sometimes got into foul trouble (see point four). After the 2004 Olympics, Duncan vowed that he would never again participate in FIBA play.
3) The 40 minute game allows less time for comebacks. Rosen also could have mentioned that it puts less of a premium on team depth.
4) Conspiracy theorists may not believe it, but Rosen says that FIBA referees "make three times as many" mistakes as NBA referees do. He is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here--but only a bit. FIBA officiating is not only bad it is inconsistent and hard to predict from play to play. Rosen notes that moving screens and hand checking are two violations that tend to be overlooked. Also, five fouls leads to disqualification instead of six and a technical foul counts as a personal foul.
5) Traditional NBA defensive strategy tends to backfire in FIBA play; NBA teams try to discourage penetration into the paint and force their opponents to shoot jump shots--but most of the good FIBA teams are built around excellent outside shooting. Rosen writes, "...because the internationals are such accurate 3-ballers and are generally not very creative finishers, Team USA's strategy in Las Vegas should be reversed. Pressure the perimeter, tag the outside shooters even when a ball-handler enters the lane, send only one potential shot-blocker to help, and drop a weak-side defender to discourage any interior passwork. Team USA's defensive rotations must avoid overpopulating the lane, and must also be under control whenever they close out 3-point shooters." As I have said on numerous occasions--most recently here--
it is vitally important for Team USA to make a concerted effort to effectively defend the three point line; this is much more critical than Team USA shooting well from behind the arc, though of course it would be a nice bonus to do that, too.
Rosen dismisses the importance of the familiarity factor but I disagree with him on this point. All of the other countries have national teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules; their players are familiar with each other and with the FIBA rules. Yes, Team USA's players have played against each other in NBA play--and in some cases in college--but they do not have the same collective experience as a group playing under FIBA rules. This is not to be lightly dismissed. Even in the NBA it can take a good team a season or two to jell into a contender, so it is asking a lot to put a team together after a whole NBA season has just concluded and expect it to have the same chemistry and familiarity that veteran FIBA teams do.
There are some minor things that Rosen did not mention that further indicate how different the FIBA game is--for instance, only coaches can call timeouts, not players.
One thing in Team USA's favor regarding next week's FIBA Americas tournament is that the level of competition will not be as high as it was in last year's FIBA World Championship. Rosen concludes, "Anything less than a gold medal, won in convincing fashion, will be a severe disappointment. But, at least against this subpar competition, there's no reason why Team USA shouldn't triumph." The FIBA Americas tournament should be a good tuneup for this group of Team USA players to get in the right mode to win the gold medal in next year's Olympics.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM